What is a plot?
The contemporary definition of plot — as it pertains to literature, cinema, and other story-driven platforms — is the plan or main story.
You can dig deeper and expand on that simple definition by stating that the plot is the sequence of events that make up the structure of the story (more on the difference between plot and story later) and keep it moving forward.
But let’s dig deeper into what plot really is.
Aristotle: The Origin of Plot Discussion
Perhaps the first discussion of plot started with Aristotle. For those behind on their Greek history, Aristotle was a famous Greek philosopher and scientist known as one of the most significant intellectual figures of all time.
Aristotle wrote books and papers on a wide range of topics:
- Philosophy of mind
- Philosophy of science
- Political theory
But he was also an intellectual master and authority on many of the arts as well.
His book Poetics delved into the analysis of tragedy and epic storytelling, represented primarily in the storytelling platforms of his time — poetry and the stage.
Aristotle held plot in very high esteem, referring to it as the life and soul of the story. Like contemporary definitions, he looked upon plot as the arrangement of incidents, forcing the characters to take action within the concept and story.
“If you string together a set of speeches expressive of a character, and well finished in point of diction or thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect with a play which has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.”
Characters can’t hold the weight of the story, and they need to be challenged. They need to face conflict after conflict, preferably with the stakes increasing as the plot goes along.
Aristotle also pointed out the core structure of plot — beginning, middle, and end. This was the birth of the three-act structure in preceding literature, poetry, theatre, cinema, television, and all other story-driven platforms and mediums.
According to him, the beginning of the story is where the actions first begin to take place. You show the character’s world and then confront them with some form of conflict they must take action on.
“…that which follows something as some other thing follows it.”
That’s the brilliant core summarization of the second act, which essentially showcases the character following — or retreating from — whatever is presented at the end of the first act.
“…that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity or as a rule, but has nothing following it.”
Another simple explanation of the last act of a three-act structure. And all stories in all mediums essentially follow this three-act structure, with obvious variations and more distinct breakdowns.
Lastly, as examples, Aristotle offered three types of plots that authors and writers can use as single types or possible hybrids.
Reversal of Intention
“…change by which action veers round to its opposite.”
This is where the story shifts from the opening intentions of the character to a turning point in the story where they are faced with some unintended conflict to deal with.
“…change from ignorance to knowledge.”
An internal change for the protagonist(s) that leads to positive or negative (as in a tragedy) results after the knowledge is attained.
The Tragic Incident
“…destructive or painful action.”
External conflicts like large causalities, destructiveness, or overall danger. See any disaster movie as examples.
But what’s the difference between plot and story?
Plot vs. Story
Writers often struggle with the difference between plot and story. The truth is that they are very different and encompass very different elements.
- The Who
- The What
- The Where
When writers conjure a story, they need to ask themselves:
- Who are the characters?
- What conflicts are they facing?
- Where is this all taking place?
The answers to those questions equate to the bones of the story to be told.
If you’re a screenwriter looking to find the best structure to write loglines, the story (who, what, and where) is where you turn to.
When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach community, a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer must hunt the beast down before it kills again.
That’s the story of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It’s basic. It covers:
- Who — a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer
- What — killer shark unleashing chaos that needs to be hunted down before it kills again
- Where — a beach community
Read ScreenCraft’s The Simple Guide to Writing a Logline!
- The How
- The When
- The Why
When you find the story, you now need to structure it with the sequence of events, based primarily on the conflict the characters face and how, when, and why they react the way they do.
- How are the characters confronted with the conflicts they face?
- When does the story take place within the lives of the characters?
- Why are the characters confronted with the conflict, and why do they react the way they do?
And, of course, that leads to Aristotle’s end where the sequence of events presented in the plot — and the actions and reactions of the characters as they deal with the conflicts within those events — lead to an ending “by necessity or rule, but has nothing following it.”
That’s what a plot is and accomplishes.
Simple and Complex Plots
Aristotle believed in two types of plots that can be used within the structure of a story.
- Simple plots
- Complex plots
Certain genres are perfect for simple plots — which publishers, studios, networks, and streamers sometimes prefer for straight-up entertainment — while other genres (mysteries, dramas, suspense thrillers) allow for more complex plots to keep audiences guessing and engaged.
The simple plot pertains to a unified construct of necessary and probable actions accompanied by a change of fortune.
- Characters are introduced
- They face a conflict, which changes their fortune (inner, outer, or preferably both) by way of ensuing conflicts and/or turn of events.
Horror movies and action flicks generally have simple plots. Characters are introduced in their ordinary world, and then they face a threat (conflict) that they must overcome (or succumb to). Everything that happens after they face that initial conflict is part of the simple cause-and-effect chain.
A complex plot is where the change of fortune is accompanied by a reversal of fortune, recognition, or both.
The plot starts out as a simple plot, but additional elements are added to make the plot much more complex.
In Poetics, Aristotle referred to the reversal of fortune as Peripeteia — a pivotal or crucial action on the protagonist’s part that changes their situation from secure to vulnerable.
He then referred to recognition as Anagnorisis — a moment of insight or understanding the protagonist experiences as they finally comprehend the web of fate they are entangled within.
The combination of these two affects the inner and outer arcs of the characters, while also offering the audience a chance to experience the single, most powerful element of a story — catharsis.
Review: What is a Plot?
What is a Plot? It’s the how, when, and why of your story.
- How are the who of your story affected?
- When does the what of your story happen?
- Why does it happen where your story takes place, and why does it affect the who of your story?
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies
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Author: Ken Miyamoto